As I Descended by Robin Talley (Review Copy) - Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten are their school’s ultimate power couple—even if no one knows it but them.
Only one thing stands between them and their perfect future: campus superstar Delilah Dufrey.
Golden child Delilah is a legend at the exclusive Acheron Academy, and the presumptive winner of the distinguished Cawdor Kingsley Prize. She runs the school, and if she chose, she could blow up Maria and Lily’s whole world with a pointed look, or a carefully placed word.
But what Delilah doesn’t know is that Lily and Maria are willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to make their dreams come true. And the first step is unseating Delilah for the Kingsley Prize. The full scholarship, awarded to Maria, will lock in her attendance at Stanford―and four more years in a shared dorm room with Lily.
Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to ensure their victory—including harnessing the dark power long rumored to be present on the former plantation that houses their school.
But when feuds turn to fatalities, and madness begins to blur the distinction between what’s real and what is imagined, the girls must decide where they draw the line.
From acclaimed author Robin Talley comes a Shakespeare-inspired story of revenge and redemption, where fair is foul, and foul is fair. From Goodreads.
I have been so excited to read As I Descended by Robin Talley ever since Talley first announced she was writing a contemporary queer retelling of Macbeth - I was completely sold on the idea! It was seriously gripping, but I did feel a little disappointed.
The description above is pretty much perfect, so I'm not going to write a summery of my own this time round. I completely loved the idea of a contemporary retelling of Macbeth, a gender-bent one at that where Macbeth was a girl - Maria - and making Macbeth and Lady Macbeth a same sex couple. It such a really cool idea! Especially with setting it at a high school where popularity can mean everything, and I could totally see how ambitious Maria and her girlfriend Lily could be.
As I Descended is narrated by five characters; Maria, Lily, Brandon - Maria's best friend, Mateo - Brandon's boyfriend, and Delilah herself, though she only narrates for a short while. It's been well over ten years since I studied Macbeth at school, so while I remembered the major parts of the story, there were a number of things I had forgotten. So I couldn't place the characters in the original play that were represented by Brandon and Mateo, and I think that worked in my favour, as it meant there were a number of surprises coming my way. In case any readers don't know who they would represent, I won't mention it here, but those who the play well may be able to guess.
I was completely sucked into this story, wondering how the major parts of the play that I remembered would play out in this novel. There are no witches in this retelling, but spirits. Acheron Academy was once a plantation where tragedy struck, and spirits now haunt the place. Maria has always been able to see ghosts and spirits, and when Lily suggests a seance one night, she is really doesn't want to, but Lily is persuasive. That seance? It changes everything. A connection has been made that isn't broken. The spirits tell Maria of her future - "That which is second will be first." Maria is now almost constantly aware of the spirits' presence, and their malevolence.
I was surprised at just how scared, doubtful and unsure Maria was at the beginning. I remembered that Lady Macbeth had to persuade Macbeth to take the path he does, but Maria didn't want to take the path she does at all. Lily exerts so much control over Maria, using emotional blackmail to get her to do what she wants - using the "if you love me, you would" - and she is so cold and heartless. Such a wonderful Lady Macbeth, but pretty frightening, the lengths she is willing to go to to get what she wants: four more years with Maria at Stanford university, which will only happen if Maria wins the Cawford Kingsley Prize. That was something I didn't quite get, to be honest. Acheron Academy is a really expensive private school; you can only go there if you have very rich parents or have a scholarship. Maria's parents pay for her attendance, and from everything we learn about them, I'm pretty sure they could pay for Maria to go to Stanford, so I don't see why she needed the Prize so badly. This is one of a few things that didn't make much sense to me.
Once Delilah is out of the picture, things start to go downhill pretty fast. Maria doesn't cope well at first with what's happened to Delilah, but soon she realises it's for the best, for her and Lily, and she becomes quite savagely determined and someone quite cold and sinister. All the terrible things that continue to happen, even the things that shake her, she is able to justify away. This is the way it's supposed to be, this is what needs to happen. Lily's change, though, was even more dramatic. She's scared underneath it all; scared of anyone finding out she is queer and is with Maria. She's worried what people will think of her - despite no-one having an issue with Brandon and Mateo - and of what her parents will say. She feels like there will be more freedom for her and Maria at Stanford, which is why she so desperately wants Maria to come with her. But a little while after things start happening, we start to see the "madness" of Lady Macbeth creep in. This is so wonderfully done, because with the spirits, you're never sure what is actually happening, and what Lily is imagining. As I Descended does have a creepy atmosphere to it, but it's not so much the spirits that I found disturbing, but how the events affect the two girls, especially Lily. The things she sees, how the spirits haunt her - if they actually are - it's enough to cause anyone a nervous breakdown. Seeing the stress and the fear create that decline in her, and eventually break her, was really quite frightening, because it's the part of the story that could actually happening; a mentally ill person could experience such terrifying hallucinations and end up not realising what's real and what's not. And without help, what then? It was really upsetting to read.
My main problem with the story were the spirits themselves, and the belief that Maria puts in them. Although it's explained why Acheron Academy is full of spirits, there were elements that seemed really far-fetched and unbelievable. I know fantastical elements of stories require a suspension of disbelief, but the story is also supposed to make those elements believable. I had too many questions. Why would the spirits know the future? Why was there a pattern, a history to some events? What is it the spirits wanted? Why would Maria just go ahead and do what spirits told her - even if she did believe her former nanny was one of them? I found this whole side of the story to be kind of weak. There just wasn't enough behind it, like with the rest of the story. Which is so strange, because the spirits play a huge part of the book. But it's not enough for me to say, "the spirits are here, and they're doing these things." I want to know why. This is a story, it's not real, this could be explained.
As I Descended is a hugely diverse novel, though. Lily is queer (as is Talley, making this an #OwnVoices novel), and because of a car accident when she was younger, she's disabled; she suffers from a lot of pain in her legs and requires the use of crutches to get around. Maria is bisexual and latina, Brandon is gay, and Mateo is gay and latino. What was great about the diversity of the book is that the various identities are almost incidental to the story, and yet inform the individual characters beliefs or choices. As previously mentioned, Lily is terrified what people will think if they know she and Maria are together, which is why she wants Maria to win the Cawdor Kingsley Prize so much. Her disability means she has to take pain medication, something that becomes pretty important we discover a short way into the story. The spirits communicate to Maria in Spanish, which leads Maria to believe certain things about them. Mateo knows the story of the ghost La Llorona from Mexican folklore, and that plays into how he sees and thinks about things that happen, and also his relationship with Brandon is the reason he becomes more involved as events transpire; at first the two are only together because they are the only two gay people at the school, but their relationship develops. These characters identities make a difference to who they are as people, which affects the story as a whole - they seem incidental, but they make a big difference.
As I Descended was a really interesting and gripping story, and a great retelling of the Macbeth play. I loved seeing how the story translated to a contemporary setting, I just wish there were more answers regarding the spirits. But still, well worth a read, as it was really enjoyable!
Thank you to Young Adult HQ for the review copy.
Published: 6th September 2016
Publisher: Mira Ink/HQ Stories
Robin Talley's Website